Search Goals on the Web
11 Jul 2008

Search Goals on the Web

11 Jul 2008

The search experience is one that continues to evolve. Developers continue to improve the algorithms and interactions aimed at getting users to their desired result(s) faster. Hints such as the exposed URL, have expanded to include elements such as StumbleUpon’s Social Search, Ask’s binoculars site previews, among others. There has even been talk and development around natural language search. And the list goes on…

Jared Spool of User Interface Engineering recently wrote about designing for how people search. A key finding from the research showcased in this article is as follows:

“When we talk to designers about how they approach the search results page, they tell us they want to give their users a list of great choices from which they’ll choose. This approach focuses these designers on creating a showcase of choices. The showcase leads developers to think choices are a good thing.

However, here’s an interesting finding from our research. Users don’t necessarily want to choose. They aren’t looking for a showcase. They are looking for the magic item that will solve their needs. If the system can’t figure it out, well then, they want to see the selection that contains their magic item. But, if the system only provides a single magic item, they’ll be happy — assuming it’s exactly what they want.”

However, today, Spool writes again on Mike Moran’s commentary on his first article, which counters this finding. Moran writes:

“[..]. many Web site searches do require just one correct answer, as Jared points out. But not all of them. In my work at, I noticed that the most preliminary searches often were informational ones. Someone might search for “e-mail archiving case studies”- they don’t want to get just one. Now, sure, if you have a page on your site that lists every blessed e-mail archiving case study, that would be a great #1 result, but you usually don’t have that kind of aggregation page for every possible query.”

So which is it? Do we give users one result or many? In Spool’s opinion, the current list format is a temporary fix for poor search algorithms, which are unable to discern the user’s intention. However, I would tend to concur with Moran here. Will technology ever be able to completely discern a user’s intention and provide the one ultimate solution? Particularly, as information grows on the web, I think this answer is no. In this case we should try to design for the many, rather than just one group.

People search differently, and use varying methods at different times. Sometimes, one may just want a simple definition no matter where it comes from, other times they may want a series of resources to compare/contrast and make a decision. For the first case, it suffices if the first result is what the person is looking for, and in the latter, it is helpful to have the other options.

The simplicity of having one result may only lead to frustrations for those that desire many answers. I think the real challenge is to ensure that results are relevant from the outset, and not necessarily to prove that computing has evolved to produce one relevant result that can satisfy everyone.

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